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Could Independence Be Newly Viable?


July 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The customary reflex answer is no, citing the historical fact that independence has never received more than 5% of the popular vote in Puerto Rico–either in the regular elections, or in the three specific plebiscites polling the three alternatives–commonwealth, statehood, or independence.

But anybody who has lived on the island for any length of time knows that the sentiment for independence is much stronger than 5% and would be more accurately assessed at a least 20%. Among current PDP leadership and reigning intellectual circles, support of independence might run as high as 50% to 60%. The reason their strong support of independence doesn’t show up in the voting is that those who feel that way–realizing they can’t win numerically and would rather not lose federal funds–simply choose to hide their vote in the commonwealth party–knowing that will block statehood and thus keep the door open for their cause. This tactic works, and results in creating a stalemate, where none of the three alternatives commands enough of a majority to induce U.S. action.

But there are new factors that could make independence more attractive to the U.S.

  1. The growing nationalism in P.R. (as evidenced by the furor over Vieques and the latest poll by the island’s leading newspaper) poses a continuing problem, for which the only natural solution is independence.
  2. Changing military strategies make U.S. bases in P.R. less vital, and given vocal, local hostility–more troublesome.
  3. The growing cost of P.R. ($16 billion dollars annually) is an increasing burden to the U.S. taxpayer.
  4. The reality that P.R. is a colony in the eyes of the world is a continuing embarrassment to the U.S.
  5. The new sensitivity to terrorism as an interconnected worldwide threat makes the island more of a liability than an asset.

In light of these new circumstances, independence is not so far fetched. The important condition here is that independence for P.R. would have to initially involve strong financial support from the U.S. It is in nobody’s best interest to make P.R. suddenly poor. But the examples of Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Dominican Republic demonstrate that the independence of major Caribbean islands is sustainable, and Puerto Rico’s much more developed infrastructure would provide an automatic lead.

One of the major, hidden assets of independence is its proven ability to re-energize the populace, and one should not underestimate the transforming force of this factor. Those doubting the potency of this as yet untapped power, should simply read U.S. history. Recall that Independence for America required defeating the foremost military power of that time, while simultaneously losing the country’s biggest market. By contrast, independence for P.R. requires no conflict, and would almost certainly come with the automatic assurance of firm American aid and friendship.

In a very real sense, independence gains credibility from the intractability of the debate between commonwealth and statehood. The critical flaw in commonwealth has been its contradictory cultivation of a separate nationalism for P.R., while fomenting massive financial dependence on the U.S. And by its ambivalent nature, commonwealth is a denial of the clear-cut identity that any nation or region needs to shape its character or future.

The critical flaw in the statehood movement is unwillingness to shed or subordinate the separate nationalism that commonwealth created. This, plus the inability of 80% of the populace to speak the language of the rest of the nation, combines to make statehood a difficult proposition from a U.S. point of view. So the seeming unworkability of both commonwealth and statehood may give new viability to the idea of independence. Aiding this is the reality that independence is the concept most likely to generate understanding in the world, and support in the U.S. populace–and this could be particularly true with the now important Hispanic vote in U.S. elections.

It is a common mistake for U.S. politicians to treat the Hispanic vote as one homogenious mass, when in fact it is very diverse, being comprised of Mexicans, Dominicans, Cubans, Columbians, Venezuelans, etc.–each with their own strong sense of different national origin. Since they all come from independent nations–independence is something they can easily relate to–and probably favor. If independence for P.R. were to become an issue favored by the stateside Hispanic vote, that would have the effect of galvanizing Congressional interest and action to a degree that neither commonwealth nor statehood have ever achieved.

What might trigger all this is the present sensitized atmosphere on terrorism. Suppose, for an undesired example, there were a new wave of assaults by Puerto Rican nationalists–similar to the shooting up of the U.S. Congress in 1954 or the execution of U.S. Marines in 1979 by Los Macheteros–terrorist tactics by today’s standards. Repugnant though these actions might be to the island majority, they could be read by U.S. Hispanics–and the world–as a passionate and repressed cry for freedom. The point is that outside events could propel independence to the forefront–regardless of its lack of majority support in P.R. Remember that the Hispanic vote in the U.S. is far bigger than the Puerto Rican non-vote. President Bush’s declared war on terrorism obliges new tactics to line up the International support necessary to win that war, and Independence for P.R. might help win that support.

Many on the island nurse the comforting illusion that no matter what, their U.S. citizenship is inviolate and cannot be taken away. This overlooks the fact that the U.S Congress has "plenary" power over P.R. (plenary is dictionary defined as "complete in every respect"). Essentially Congress can do with P.R. whatever it decides to do, and Puerto Rico could easily become a pawn in a bigger game.

The calm, rational view is that none of this is likely to happen and that an orderly status quo will prevail. But anyone who overlooks the emotional quotient in a Latin scenario is making a serious miscalculation. Remember that in P.R., we have a population whose majority rejects American identity, rejects the English language, rejects American military presence and rejects the American symbols of flag, anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, while overtly preferring their own identity, their own language and their own symbols of flag and anthem. Doesn’t that sound like a repressed longing for independence? Isn’t that how an objective, outside observer would see it?

And have we, as Americans, so forgotten the interwoven nature of freedom and Independence–which our own history so vividly teaches–that we now presume to deny these benefits to a small island who might also aspire to them? Or could we find a generous way to allow this democracy–that America planted–to reach separate, self-sufficient, full flower in independence?

Garry Hoyt lived and worked in Puerto Rico from 1955 until 1980. He resides in Rhode Island and maintains strong ties with Puerto Rico.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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